U.S. Court Orders Fisheries Managers to Better Protect Habitat

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - A U.S. federal court has found that government plans that regulate fisheries in five of the nation's eight fishery management regions fail to comply with federal environmental law.

The judge has ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to assess the impacts of fishing on fish habitat in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, New England, Pacific and North Pacific fishery management regions.

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Environmentalists charge that non-selective fishing methods like trawling damage fish habitat and survival rates. The 95 percent of the catch in this photo that was not shrimp died on deck and was shoved overboard. (Photo by Elliot Norse courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
Ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by American Oceans Campaign and eight other conservation and fishing organizations, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler concluded on September 13 that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

The violations arose when the agency failed to properly assess fishing impacts on fish habitat and analyze a range of alternatives to protect essential fish habitat in the five regions.

Judge Kessler ordered NMFS to conduct the assessments to ensure fish habitat protection.

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Sea floor before a bottom trawler passed through. (Two photos Keith Sainsbury courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
The lawsuit was filed in May 1999 against then Secretary of Commerce William Daley, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NMFS.

The plaintiffs challenged more than 17 fishery management plans and environmental assessments that regulate fisheries in five regions, claiming NMFS failed to properly assess fishing impacts and analyze possible measures to protect essential fish habitat as required by the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) of 1996 and the National Environmental Policy Act.

"It does not appear that NMFS took a 'hard look' at the problem with any of the ‘environmental assessments’," stated Judge Kessler in her opinion. "There is no substantive discussion of how fishing practices and gear may damage corals, disrupt fish habitat and destroy benthic life that helps support healthy fish populations."

Judge Kessler further stated that all of the environmental assessments challenged by American Oceans Campaign and other groups "fail to consider the relevant and feasible alternatives, and fail to fully explain the environmental impact of the proposed action and alternatives."

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Same section of sea floor after being trawled
As a result, Judge Kessler required NMFS to redo the environmental assessments so they fully comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

"We are pleased that the Court is requiring NMFS to fully analyze the environmental impacts of its far reaching actions, as other courts have now done throughout the country," said Eric Bilsky, senior attorney with the Ocean Law Project. "We hope NMFS is getting the message that the environmental effects of fisheries must be taken seriously."

The National Marine Fisheries Service is still reviewing the court ruling, said Gordon Helm, spokesperson for the NMFS. "We’re reviewing the judge’s order and expect to have a more definitive response soon," Helm said.

"The Sustainable Fisheries Act requires that NMFS not only regulate the number of fish that are caught in U.S. fisheries, but also evaluate how they are caught," said Christopher Zeman, fisheries program counsel for the American Oceans Campaign.

"Presently, many of the nation's major fisheries rely predominantly on destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawling and scallop dredging, where fishermen not only catch fish, but also devastate the fish's habitat," Zeman said.

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Fish boats in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Squid, shrimp, sardines and salmon are among the active fisheries. (Photo by Kip Evans courtesy National Marine Sanctuaries)
Federally funded marine studies of commercial fishing with bottom trawling gear in national marine sanctuaries have found that the gear damages essential fish habitat and eliminates diverse fish nursery habitats.

Other studies show a decrease in species diversity in essential fish habitats that have been trawled.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act amended the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act to direct fishery managers to take a holistic, ecosystem based approach to fisheries management. As part of this directive, NMFS was required to identify essential fish habitat in fishery management plans and assess and minimize the effects of fishing on fish habitat by no later than October 1998 - two years after passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act.

Paul Parker, executive director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, stated, "This ruling should go a long way toward getting NMFS to protect undersea habitats the way it should have the first time around in 1998. We are not looking to put bottom tending mobile gear fishermen out of business. In fact, in many cases, we are working together in the fisheries management process to protect rocky bottom habitats that cod and other groundfish need for food and shelter."

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, stated, "PCFFA has long been a leader in bringing to light the importance of protecting essential fish habitat. We know from our experience with the recent West Coast groundfish fishery collapse that fish populations are only as healthy as the habitats that support them. A comprehensive assessment of the impacts of fishing on ocean habitats is needed if we are to successfully rebuild our depleted groundfish populations and create a truly sustainable fishery."

Other plaintiffs challenging the government's actions include the Center for Marine Conservation, Florida Wildlife Federation, Institute for Fisheries Resources, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Reefkeeper International.